- Apple shut down a Slack channel that employees created to talk about their pay at the company.
- It did so despite allowing channels like #fun-dogs slip past its rule against non-work-related topics.
- Experts say Apple “shot itself in the foot” if it enforced its policy inconsistently.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Apple banned a Slack channel that employees created to discuss their compensation at the company, and experts told Insider the company is on “very dangerous grounds” for doing so.
Apple shut down the channel because, while the topic was aligned with its “commitment to pay equity,” it violated the company’s Slack Terms of Service, The Verge’s Zoë Schiffer reported.
Apple also said “Slack channels for activities and hobbies not recognized as Apple Employee clubs or Diversity Network Associations (DNAs) aren’t permitted and shouldn’t be created.” But the outlet reported that Apple appears to not enforce that policy consistently since Slack channels exist at Apple devoted to non-work topics like dogs, gaming, dad jokes, and foosball.
While the experts we spoke to agree it’s difficult to say if this was strictly legal or illegal, they agreed that if Apple is not applying the rules equally within Slack, the company could be in hot water if employees were to file a lawsuit against it.
“A company can have a policy that says personal use of email or the Slack channel or any other technology is prohibited,” Anne Clark, a partner at the law firm Vladeck, Raskin and Clark, told Insider. But “if it only raises an issue when somebody is talking about pay or any other conditions of work or discrimination, then the company is violating the law.”
Yes to ‘happy, fluffy’ topics, no to working conditions?
The National Labor Relations Act protects employees so they can talk about wages and conditions, Dan Bowling – a labor lawyer and a professor at Duke University School of Law – told Insider, and it’s unlawful for the company to block that.
“If two or more employees are talking about workplace conditions, then they’re protected by the NLRA,” Clark said.
But it’s not that black-and-white in this scenario, experts say.
That’s because Apple does have certain rights to block employer equipment and software – in this case, Slack – from being used to discuss non-work-related topics, Bowling said. The company also has the right to prohibit employees from using company systems to talk during work hours about things not related to the job.
“If they allow other topics but don’t allow union or wages topics, that in and of itself is going to put Apple in a very bad position,” Bowling said, adding, the company “shot itself in the foot here.”
Clark similarly said Apple can’t say employees “can talk about happy, fluffy things but not anything about the workplace.”
Paul Holtzman, a labor and employment attorney at Krokidas and Bluestein, likened it to employee organizing rights before the dawn of the internet, when employers would prohibit materials from being distributed via mailboxes or in-person at a school or company.
If companies had blanket policies saying that company mailboxes can only be used for business but cracked down on organizing paperwork and not girl scout cookie promotions or soccer league notices, then they would field pushback over “targeting or treating union organizing materials differently than you are other non-work-related materials.”
Experts agreed that the challenge that Apple would face in a lawsuit would be that they weren’t consistent. Bowling even said that employees “could probably win an unfair labor practice case down the road against Apple.”
“I think they’re on very dangerous grounds in terms of the liability under the NLRA or state law or the discrimination statutes,” Clark said.